‘Voltaire said that the most extraordinary man in recorded history was Charles XII. I would disagree: the most extraordinary man – if we admit such superlatives – was that mysterious subject of Charles XII, Emanuel Swedenborg’. —Jorge Luis Borges
Emanuel Swedenborg was born in Stockholm in 1688. In 1716, he set up and edited Sweden’s first scientific journalDaedalus Hyperboreus, and wrote on scientific subjects, such as mathematics, geology and astronomy, conceiving the nebular hypothesis for the origin of the solar system in The Principia (1734). Swedenborg’s interest in the soul led to a study of anatomy resulting in the publication of The Economy of the Animal Kingdom (1740-1) and The Soul’s Domain (1744-5) which, along with numerous unpublished manuscripts showed his deductions, particularly those on the workings of the brain, to be years ahead of his time.
In 1743 Swedenborg underwent a series of visionary experiences. In 1747 he began hisArcana Caelestia (1749-56) and in 1758 published Heaven and Hell, his most popular work. In this and other books he outlined his notion of correspondences: that everything in the physical world corresponds to a spiritual value. Swedenborg’s theory has had great resonance in subsequent years, influencing figures such as William Blake, Honoré de Balzac, RW Emerson, WB Yeats, CG Jung and Saul Bellow. Swedenborg published his mystical works anonymously whilst continuing to serve as a member of the Swedish House of Nobles. He died in 1772 in London. Read more on Swedenborg’s cultural legacy here.
Emanuel Swedenborg was born in Stockholm, Sweden on 29th January 1688 (Old Style calendar, 9th February New Style), the son of Jesper Swedberg, an army chaplain who was later to become a chaplain to the royal family and then Bishop of Skara in the Swedish (Lutheran) Church, and his wife Sara Behm. From the age of eleven he was educated at the university of Uppsala, where he studied medicine, astronomy, mathematics, natural sciences, Latin and Greek. Early influences included Rene Descartes (1596-1650), Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) and Christian Wolff (1679-1754).
As a young man he became renowned for his mechanical inventions (and has since been compared with Leonardo da Vinci for this aspect of his achievement). He drew up plans for a submarine and a glider aircraft (as shown overleaf). Among his hobbies were watchmaking, bookbinding and lens grinding (the profession of the 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza), which he learned in Holland. In 1716 he was appointed to the position of Assessor of the Royal College of Mines (the mining industry, both copper and iron, being of paramount importance for the Swedish economy) and held this post for thirty-one years. He was engaged in various administrative and technical duties in connection with this important industry and he was later to write a treatise on iron and other metals. In 1719 the family was ennobled and took the name ‘Swedenborg’ from the family homestead in central Sweden. Emanuel became a regular attender at the Riksdag, or House of Nobles, and made contributions on financial and economic matters and on foreign affairs until shortly before his death.
In the physical sciences his achievements were great. He speculated about the nature of matter and the universe and anticipated the cosmology later formulated by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Pierre Simon, marquis de Laplace (1749-1827) that the planets in the solar system originated in the solar mass.
He published a theoretical book on the physical sciences, The Principia; or, the First Principles of Natural Things, in 1734. Turning his attention to the human body, he studied its anatomy and physiology in an attempt to discover the seat of the soul. At one point he thought that the blood might be the carrier of the soul. Fifty years before the discovery of oxygen by Joseph Priestley (1732-1804) he came near to discovering how the lungs purify the blood. He also made discoveries about the brain and the nervous system which were way ahead of his own time.
He also gave an accurate account of the importance of the cerebral cortex as the seat of the higher psychical functions. Later scientists have praised him for his insight into the function and importance of the ductless glands, particularly the pituitary gland. He also anticipated modern thinking on the left brain and right brain functions. His published works of this period include The Economy of the Animal Kingdom (1740-1) and The Animal Kingdom (1744-5). Published posthumously were The Cerebrum (1738-40), The Brain (1742-4) and The Generative Organs (1743)––a separate volume of The Animal Kingdom dealing with the human sexual organs and not translated into English until the middle of the 19th century.
In the mid-1740s, however, Swedenborg’s life took a new direction. Turning from his outward journey (discovering the natural world, the human body, even travelling around Europe), he embarked on an inward journey. at the outset he underwent a transitional period in which he experienced very lucid dreams, some of them of a highly erotic character, which he recorded in his private Dream Diary, a work written in Swedish and not intended for publication. It was not published until the middle of the 19th century when it shocked many readers by its frankness. It was first translated into English by a London doctor (who also translated The Generative Organs) and a modern annotated edition is available. The American psychologist Wilso van Dusen, who made an extensive study of Swedenborg, has said that what was happening to Swedenborg at this time was the integration of his thinking and feeling sides.
This phase of Swedenborg’s life culminated in a vision of Christ in a London inn (1745). He came to believe that God was using him as an instrument to interpret Scripture, i.e., the Bible. To Swedenborg himself that was the most important part of his work. He embarked on a huge work of biblical exegesis, a massive verse-by-verse commentary on the first books of the Bible, Genesis and Exodus, explaining the ‘inner’ or ‘spiritual’ meaning of these ancient texts.
This book is called Arcana Caelestia [Heavenly Secrets] and was published in London in eight Latin volumes between 1749 and 1756 (the English translation runs to twelve volumes). He was later to publish two further biblical commentaries on the Book of Revelation, one of them incomplete and not published in his lifetime. At a time when the Creation story in Genesis was taken as literal truth (i.e., God made the world in six days and created Adam and Eve as the first humans), Swedenborg, using as his hermeneutic method a ‘hieroglyphic key’, the doctrine of ‘correspondences’ (that everything in the natural world has a spiritual counterpart), shows that these ancient stories are symbolic, not literal.
Thus, the story of Creation tells of the development of the human soul, from the darkness and void at the beginning, signifying the state of ignorance, to the creation of man in the image of God, a process that Swedenborg calls ‘regeneration’, or being ‘born again’, not an instantaneous conversion experience as evangelical Christians sometimes describe it, but a lifelong process and one that very few achieve.
In his theological books, written over a period of more than twenty years and culminating in his work of ‘universal theology’, The True Christian Religion (1771), Swedenborg assumed the role of the prophet of a ‘new age’ of enlightened Christianity, although he never attempted to found a new religious denomination. God is manifested to humans as the Lord Jesus Christ, the ‘Divine Human’, and so his theology is essentially Christ-centred. God, who is love itself, condemns no one to hell.
‘Heaven’ and ‘hell’ are self-chosen states of consciousness, both in this life and the next. Acknowledging the Divine in some form and a life of love, or charity, towards the ‘neighbour’ are the means of salvation, not adherence to rigid creeds. Although an 18th-century Protestant, Swedenborg was, in effect, one of the first ecumenical Christians, living in an age when that term had not been invented. Looking beyond the Christian church, he saw that God’s mercy was universal. He saw that the heart of all religion transcends the boundaries of creeds, cultures and times. All who act in the ‘good’ that they know will be saved. This is not a matter of adherence to a set of rules, but of searching, of trying, of reaching for the ‘one life’ that is above all religions. But that is not how Swedenborg is best remembered.
Interspersed between the biblical commentaries in Arcana Caelestia are lucid accounts of his ‘experiences’ of a spiritual world beyond this one which Swedenborg claimed to have ‘heard and seen’. In his best-known work, Heaven and Hell (1758), Swedenborg collected these experiences together and gave an account of a next world that resembles this one. The spiritual world is the foundation for the natural world and without it our world could not subsist. He describes this world as one of ‘states’ of consciousness where time and space as we know them do not exist, but he describes a world where spirits eat, sleep, talk, read books, work and make love, just as humans do here, although clothed in a ‘spiritual’, not a natural, body.
Heaven and Hell is a book that has brought great comfort to many over the last 250 years. Some have seen Swedenborg as the ‘father’ of spiritualism, although he himself believed he had been granted special gifts by God which were not to be used for trivial purposes and were not available to everybody. Others have dismissed Swedenborg as an inventor of pretty fairy tales (and this is perhaps why his theology has not, on the whole, been taken seriously by the Christian churches), while some have even considered him to have been insane.
Two and a half centuries on, we can compare Swedenborg’s experiences (also recorded in his long Spiritual Diary which was never intended for publication) with accounts given by spiritualists and with the evidence collated over the last thirty odd years of ‘near-death experiences’, that is to say accounts given by people whose hearts have stopped, e.g., on the operating table, and have then been revived. There is a remarkable consistency between these accounts and what Swedenborg wrote in Heaven and Hell and other works. Those reporting near-death experiences (and there are now thousands of such accounts) tell of benign feelings of light, gentleness, peace and love, even of being welcomed by deceased relatives and friends.
All this you will find in Swedenborg. Especially moving is his description of the newly arrived soul, i.e., dead person, being awakened in the spirit world by two ‘celestial’ angels, beings who represent love. Heaven and Hell bears some comparison with the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Swedenborg appears to have perfected special breathing techniques which enabled him to achieve ‘hypnagogic’ states.
Swedenborg never married, but he reserves a special place for what he calls the ‘conjugial’ love of one man and one woman. This he describes as the ‘precious treasure of human life’. In a remarkable work called Conjugial Love (1768), he describes the spiritual principles which underlie sexual love. Human marriage at its best is a ‘perfect mirroring of the Divine’. This is the first theosophical book Swedenborg published under his own name (the earlier ones were published anonymously, although Swedenborg was soon identified as their author) and it is described by him as a ‘work of morals’. The book is remarkable for the frankness with which it discusses human sexual conduct, but contains passages of great lyricism when describing ‘conjugial love’ and it has inspired much poetry, particularly of the Romantic and Victorian periods.
It should also be emphasized that during his period of spiritual ‘illumination’, which lasted from the mid-1740s until his death, Swedenborg continued to lead a ‘normal’ life in the world. He travelled to London and Amsterdam on several occasions in connection with the publication of his books which, although they were written in Latin, could not be published in Sweden where a sufficient climate of intellectual and religious freedom did not exist. He continued to be an active member of the Swedish House of Nobles, presenting a paper on problems relating to the inflation of the currency when he was already in his 80s. He travelled to London for the time in 1771 and lodged with a wig maker in Clerkenwell. He died on 29th March 1772, having, it is said, predicted the date of his death and having paid his rent up to that date. His remains were buried in the Swedish church in Wapping and when that church was demolished in the early 20th century they were removed to Sweden by warship and interred with great ceremony in Uppsala Cathedral where his grand sarcophagus can still be seen. Thus Sweden came finally to honour one of its greatest sons and a man of immense importance in European culture, although his achievements are still comparatively little known.